Peoplequake: Mass Migration, Ageing Nations and the Coming Population Crash
By Fred Pearce
Eden Project Books £12.99, 352 pages
FT Bookshop price: £10.39

Imagine taking a trip to your local pharmacy to fetch condoms and finding on arrival that stocks have run out. On asking for the pill or the diaphragm, you are told that these are no longer available. Visits to your GP, health clinic and hospital reveal that no one is trained to fit the coil or deliver a contraceptive injection. You are divested, in other words, of the power to choose whether or not your next act of intercourse will result in pregnancy.

Lack of family planning services is the reality that many families live with in the developing world. In Rwanda, one of the most densely populated countries on earth, and Ethiopia, just a tenth of the population has access to contraceptives and reproductive health care. A GP friend of mine who worked in a clinic in central Ghana imagined that a large part of her energy would be devoted to explaining the benefits of birth control. In fact, the vast majority of patients already wanted to stop at around two children in order to avoid stretching the family’s resources. And yet the total fertility rate in Ghana last year was nearly twice that, at 3.7 children born for each woman, higher than in 2003.

Despite this, talking about overpopulation as a problem in developing countries is to risk being accused of racism, eugenics, and even sharing a stable with the Nazis. Fred Pearce, journalist and author of a new population polemic, Peoplequake, levels his sights on the few prominent environmentalists who have voiced their concern about overpopulation, including Jonathon Porritt, Jared Diamond and David Attenborough, and bundles them together with all the mendacious kooks who have ever espoused elements of Robert Malthus’s theory of overpopulation. But it is not racist to say that overpopulation in developing-world countries can exacerbate poverty, malnutrition and environmental degradation. Rather, it would be racist to deny those people’s equal right to the primary health care services we in the west regard as our birthright.

No doubt Pearce and the great agricultural economist, Ester Boserup, are right that growing populations often create the people power required to boost productivity and invent solutions to their own problems. But this is no reason to downplay, as Pearce does, the effectiveness of programmes such as the one in Bangladesh, where birth rates halved in 15 years following the deployment of a team of 50,000 trained female reproductive health workers.

Already, talking about population is widely regarded by western politicians as a vote-loser. Pearce’s shrill attempt to condemn the awakening of these concerns may help to lull policy-makers back into apathetic slumber, but it will not be much help to the billions currently experiencing inadequate access to family planning services.

Blaming the poorest people in the world for global problems such as climate change would certainly be misguided since the vast majority of emissions are caused by the high consumption rates of the global rich. As Pearce points out, the richest one billion people on the planet consume resources and produce waste at an average rate that is 32 times greater than the remaining nearly six billion. That is why Porritt has said that following two centuries in which global population has multiplied nearly seven times, it would be a good thing for countries such as the UK to let their population drop back by half in order to bring total consumption within sustainable limits.

Pearce accepts the axiom put forward by Paul Ehrlich, author of the The Population Bomb (1968), that our environmental impact is a combination of three things: the number of people, the consumption of each individual, and the resources needed, or pollution generated, in satisfying that consumption. Pearce is right to argue that reducing consumption and more efficient resource-use would be an effective way of reining in environmental damage. But if it is the case, as Pearce says, that the rich have a duty to reduce consumption in order to avoid global ecological disaster, why is it not equally the case that we have a responsibility to reduce our population for the same reasons? Persuading people to cut their consumption is proving a hard sell, but the encouraging news is that Europeans are already limiting their fecundity of their own volition.

Strangely, however, Pearce attempts to inculcate panic that indigenous European populations have fecundity rates below replacement level. His initial description of this scenario is purple-prosed fear-mongering in its crudest form. He has publicly made the preposterous warning that Europe’s “indigenous population is going to die out”. He calls this eventuality a “Doomsday” meltdown which will “plunge the continent into a tailspin of ever-declining numbers”. Ironically, Pearce tries to associate the fear of overpopulation with fascism, but if an argument can be countered by the historical company it keeps, then Pearce’s fear of underpopulation has the most damning of all associates. Joseph Goebbels, in 1940, tried to reverse a feared decline in population, making the pram the tank of the Home Front and awarding the Nazi Mother Cross to mothers of many children. Hitler discouraged female factory workers, insisting that “women have other tasks …they have to bear children.” One scholar Pearce brings forward in support of his fear says that “One can imagine a shrinking Europe, whose residences fill with immigrants from North Africa, who spread their culture hostile to science. Civilisations have simply melted away because of poor reproductive rates of the dominant class.”

Still more perplexing is the fact that this apocalypticism is irreconcilable with the picture Pearce paints at the end of the book where he sees an ageing population as a potential opportunity for a more peaceful, sustainable society. This last section is actually quite good. It contains a level-headed, balanced assessment of what a global ageing population might look like, and why we should welcome immigrants who wish to come and work in Europe. If this optimistic outlook is Pearce’s real view, why the alarmist beginning to the book? Arguably, a journalist writing several articles over a long period need not worry too much if the thinking behind them is inconsistent. But when these conflicting views are aligned in a single book, the reader is left wondering whether the author is in full grasp of the policies he hopes will help to shape the future of the world.

Tristram Stuart is author of ‘Waste: Uncovering the Global Food Scandal’ (Penguin)

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